In several Southern cities, lacking a Social Security number or the money to pay a fine can lead to the loss of heat, gas, light and water. Yes, it sounds unbelievable, but here's what's happening.
LaGrange, Georgia, incorporated in 1828, is home to 30,557 diverse residents: 2015 census figures report that the population is 47.9 percent African American; 43.2 percent white; 4.7 percent Latinx; and 4.2 percent Asian, Native American or mixed-race.
The city's website describes LaGrange as a "growing progressive city" just south of Atlanta. Realtors tout its family-friendly affordability: a new 2,500-to-3,000-square-foot home sells for an average price of $175,250 and there are 19 public and private schools to educate the city's 13,000 kids from pre-K through high school. Additionally, there are numerous gardens, a 26,000-acre reservoir bordering 500 miles of coastline, and a variety of museums, galleries and concert halls.
But as idyllic as it may sound, poverty and racism can also be found in LaGrange, a reality that has galvanized activists and public-interest lawyers to push for policy changes and equity for all who call the city home.
The nexus for their work centers around something many of us take for granted -- access to public utilities.
It is city policy to deny utilities to people lacking a Social Security number or other form of US-issued identification.
As it currently stands, all utilities in LaGrange -- electricity, natural gas, sanitation, sewers, telecommunications and water -- come directly from the city. "Profits generated by our utility system remain in the community to fund traditional city services and offset property taxes," the city's website boasts. What's more, the site continues, the utility's workforce is entirely non-union. "This protects our customers from any interruptions caused by labor strikes."
Even more dastardly, not every resident of LaGrange has access to these services because it is city policy to deny utilities to people lacking a Social Security number or other form of US-issued identification. This is one of the policies being challenged by a lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, the NAACP of Troup County, Project South, the National Immigration Law Center and the civil rights law firm of Relman, Dane & Colfax.
The documents required to set up an account "are typically unavailable to undocumented immigrants," Azadeh Shahshahani and Kathryn Madison wrote in a recent Emory University Law Review article. "Even in the 21st century, some households in the United States face the risk of going without electricity or running water in their homes because of their national origin or immigration status." This, they wrote, not only violates international human rights norms, but is a violation of the Fair Housing Act, which makes it unlawful "to make unavailable or deny a dwelling to someone based on national origin."
Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South, adds that while several Alabama cities presently deny utility services to those without US-issued identification, LaGrange is the only Georgia locale to impose this rule. A year ago, East Point, Georgia, did likewise, but a 2016 meeting between Project South activists and East Point officials led that city to allow residents to substitute credit or debit cards, military or school identification, green cards, foreign passports, birth certificates, driver's licenses or work permits in place of a Social Security number. Georgia Power -- the utility provider for 155 of the state's 159 counties -- allows those wishing to open an account to show a similar variety of documents. Why, then, doesn't LaGrange? They won't say and neither city lawmakers nor utility staffers responded to my requests for an interview.
Other Obstacles to Service
Undocumented immigrants are not the only LaGrange residents in danger of losing access to heat, electricity or water. Hundreds of people (exact numbers are unavailable) who have been unable to pay fines for minor infractions -- typically things like driving without a license; failing to yield at an intersection; having a broken tail-light; lacking up-to-date car insurance; shoplifting; or possessing a small amount of marijuana -- have had unpaid fines attached to their utility bills, causing them to lose -- or be at risk of losing -- services if they fail to pay the arrears by a specified date.
Atteeyah Hollie, attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Jamie Crook, an attorney at Relman, Dane & Colfax, are suing the city of LaGrange on behalf of several low-income tenants and property owners facing the cessation of services or loss of income from renters.
These impacts on low-income residents typically transpire via the criminal legal system, Hollie explains. "Let's say you're pulled over by police and they discover you're driving without a license," she begins. "You'll have to go to court where you're usually given a fine. If you're unable to pay the fine, you're put on probation, typically for 12 months. While on probation, you still face the fine you were assessed, but you now also have to pay a probation supervision fee, about $44 a month. After a year, if you still haven't paid these constantly increasing fines, plus interest, your case gets sent to the city Collections Department. They later send out a notice that the fines have been added to your utility bill. This is presented as a humane alternative to sending the person to jail, but it is absurd that we have courts that basically serve no other role than to generate revenue for the city."
This pattern has had a disproportionate impact on LaGrange's four largely African American neighborhoods, Crook adds, and it's even worse for residents of public housing.
"If you live in government housing and have no utilities for five days, the city institutes eviction proceedings against you," she says. Those with housing choice vouchers also face a conundrum, she continues, since having an eviction on one's record may make it impossible to secure housing in the future.
"People divert money from rent to pay these bills," Hollie told Truthout. "They feel deep desperation to stay in their homes and home communities since they often have no other place to go." She sees this an example of the overreach of the criminal legal system and its encroachment into the lives of low-income people, especially those of color.
Crook goes further, putting the policy into a broader frame. "Policies like those of LaGrange are a continuation of discrimination against people of color that have a long history in the US, policies that make it hard for people of color to live in certain parts of the country. The LaGrange policy is supposedly neutral -- the result of non-payment of fines -- but in many places around the country, among them Zanesville, Ohio, and numerous unincorporated towns throughout California, people of color have been denied paved roads, sewers and running water in their communities for 50 or more years."
Ernest Ward, president of the NAACP of Troup County, Georgia, knows the magnitude of the injustice and worries that these policies could spread to other cities, not just in Georgia, but throughout the country. That possibility, he says, sticks in his craw since he has personally seen their devastating impact. A few years back, he says, he met a man who was stopped by police while driving without insurance. Unable to pay the fine, he ended up in jail. After several months behind bars, he was released and moved in with a family member. "Next thing he knew," Ward says, "a bill showed up at this address for fees he supposedly owed the court. He thought being in jail satisfied the judgment, and didn't even have utilities in his name.... The government of LaGrange has now stopped throwing people in jail for these kinds of things, and probably think they're doing us a favor by adding the fees to our utility bills. They aren't."
Penalties are disproportionately employed against poor people.
In another case, Ward describes a woman arrested for driving without a seatbelt who was fined $25. "They put her on probation for two years because she did not have the $25, and then 24 months of probation supervision fees got added to her light bill," he says. "After they put her electricity off, she had to move in with friends in another county since she did not have the funds to get her service restored."
Georgia Leads the Country in People on Probation
"No state comes close to Georgia in terms of the number of people living under court supervision," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "It's very profitable. There is nothing inherently wrong in imposing fines for violations, but it should be done with recognition of the person's ability to pay. Penalties are disproportionately employed against poor people. For example, if you're driving a rundown car, you're more likely to be stopped."
Raphael, a resident of Portland, Oregon, learned how fines are being used to buttress city budgets -- especially in places that do not impose property taxes on homeowners -- firsthand. Several years ago, he was stopped for driving 10 miles over the speed limit in Montana. "The police took my name and contact information and then asked me if they could search the car. I said 'no,' and they let me go with a warning, but they followed me. When I got to the tiny town of Wolf Point -- population 2,600 -- they stopped me for a second time. This time they said I was going too slow, 45 miles an hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone. They again asked to search the car and I again refused. They then put me in handcuffs and read me my rights. After a while, they took the cuffs off but put tape around the car, seizing it. They later took me to a hotel -- the most ridiculous thing is that they let me stop and pick up a six-pack of beer -- where I spent the night."
The following morning Raphael called an attorney friend who was able to refer him to a local lawyer. By afternoon, he was allowed to leave Montana -- without his car -- and took a train to Chicago, where he had family. He eventually had to shell out a total of $5,750 -- $5,000 in lawyer's fees and an additional $750 to satisfy the court fines. "I was lucky," he reports. "I had $6,000 in my bank account so could pay everything off and get my car back. My car was old, it looked messy, and the police probably assumed I had drugs inside. I know I'm lucky, but I barely got out in one piece. I was alone, without witnesses, and was basically shaken down."
And it's not just Wolf Point. Trivial offenses generate big bucks in disparate cities and towns throughout the United States. In Campo, Colorado, for example, 93 percent of municipal revenue came from traffic tickets and court fees in 2015. Similarly, the New York Times reported that two years ago, fines for traffic stops and offenses like shoplifting generated $1.7 million in Ferguson, Missouri.
Meanwhile, government officials in LaGrange are patting themselves on the back, portraying the fact that they no longer toss debtors in jail as a sign of progress. Lawyers Atteeyah Hollie and Jamie Crook disagree. "The palpable fear that our clients have of their water or electricity being disconnected is almost as great as their fear of going to jail," Hollie says. "It stresses them out badly. One of the plaintiffs in our case has young children and lives with her elderly, disabled mother. This family cannot survive without light and water. None of our plaintiffs can live without utilities."
This is why, she continues, the lawsuit is seeking monetary damages as compensation for those who've been hard hit by these policies. At the same time, the attorneys and plaintiffs want policy changes -- an end to the requirement that a Social Security number be provided before utility service can be turned on and an end to the policy of attaching court debt and fines to utility bills.
Stopping these practices before they spread to other cash-strapped cities -- a palpable risk, given Trump-led attacks on the poor -- is at the core of this mission.